Timeless Tests – South Africa v Wales
3 November 2021
Ahead of their clash in Cardiff on Saturday, Quintin van Jaarsveld highlights five of the most significant showdowns between South Africa and Wales in the professional era.
June 26, 1999, marked a historic double whammy for Wales and a new low for the shell-shocked Springboks. Fate itself had seemingly forgotten what was in store as instead of 75,000 fans witnessing unprecedented heroics in the Millennium Stadium, the half-built new home of Welsh rugby could only accommodate 27,000 supporters and construction workers for its official opening.
Of the dozen Tests between the nations dating back to 1906, South Africa had won 11 while the 1970 confrontation in Cardiff ended in a 6-all draw. Given their dominance and the fact that the Springboks were the reigning world champions, few except the quietly confident hosts expected anything different.
To say it was lucky number 13 would be a disservice to the Dragons, who outplayed the men in green and gold to secure a first-ever 29-19 win. It was also the first of many daggers to Springbok hearts by mastermind Graham Henry, the future All Blacks coach who’d transformed the Welsh team after having taken over the reins the previous year.
Centre Mark Taylor wrote his name in the history books by scoring the first try at the new stadium with wing Gareth Thomas scoring Wales’ second after the break. Flyhalf Neil Jenkins’ boot proved to be the difference as he kicked 19 points to steer his side to the famous victory.
Nick Mallett’s Springboks scored twice through scrumhalf Werner Swanepoel and fullback Percy Montgomery, while flyhalf Braam van Straaten and his replacement Gaffie du Toit added six and three points off the tee respectively.
Peter de Villiers’ Springboks got off to the perfect start in their 2011 World Cup opener against the men in red in Wellington with Frans Steyn, playing in the No.15 jersey, scoring after just three minutes. Then things went off the boil for the defending champions as they lost two key players through injury – captain Jean de Villiers in the first half and legendary lock Victor Matfield after the break.
Smelling blood in the water, Wales hit the front when No.8 Toby Faletau crashed over for a converted try in the 54th minute. After a tense 10-minute period and still trailing 16-10, the wounded Springboks worked their way into the Welsh 22, where the forwards hit the ball up.
Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez then summed up the situation, picked up from the ruck, drew pillar defender Paul James and popped a short pass to a flying Francois Hougaard – who’d come on for Bryan Habana minutes earlier – who cantered over untouched for what proved to be the match-winning seven-pointer as the Springboks held on for a nail-biting 17-16 victory.
Legendary Duo Save the Day
Back on the biggest stage of them all four years later, the stakes were raised even higher as the sides met in a quarterfinal clash at Twickenham. Heyneke Meyer’s men had still not fully recovered from “The Miracle of Brighton”, which saw them crash to a historic 34-32 loss to Japan in their opening World Cup assignment, and were ripe for the picking in Sam Warburton and company’s eyes.
As they did in 2011, Wales pushed the Springboks to the limit. The hard-fought battle saw the lead change hands several times with pivot Handré Pollard worth his weight in gold for South Africa, slotting five penalties and a drop goal. With six minutes remaining, the Welsh led 19-18 and it took a moment of brilliance from an attacking scrum inside the Welsh 22 to save the day for the Springboks.
No.8 Duane Vermeulen picked up from the back, drew two defenders and threw a beautiful behind-the-back offload to scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, who sprinted and dived over in the corner to secure a thrilling 23-19 win.
It was red alert for the Springboks in the 2017 tour match in Cardiff as Wales raced into a 21-3 lead. New Zealand-born Hadleigh Parkes had a dream debut as he bagged a first-half brace after midfield partner Scott Williams’ had gone over for the opening try in the fourth minute.
The embattled men in green and gold, however, weren’t going down without a fight and showed great character to claw their way back into the contest. Warrick Gelant, playing on the left-wing, Handré Pollard and centre Jesse Kriel crossed the whitewash as the Springboks scored 19 unanswered points to take the lead in the second half, but Wales kept their composure.
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny kicked a penalty in the 67th minute to nudge the hosts back in front and that’s how it stayed as Warren Gatland’s charges clinched a 24-22 victory.
Fire and Ice
The last encounter between these two nations was also the most significant in the history of the rivalry as a place in the 2019 World Cup final was at stake. With both teams playing conservatively, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game, but the semi-final showdown in Yokohama was edge-of-seat stuff from start to finish.
Handré Pollard and Dan Biggar were locked in an intense kicking duel and both flyhalves had ice in their veins as they continually traded penalties. Centre Damian de Allende proved to be the game-changer as he created something out of nothing with his power and determination, bulldozing Biggar and replacement scrumhalf Tomos Williams to force his way over the try line in the 56th minute to give the Springboks a 16-9 lead.
Determined to reach their first-ever World Cup final, Wales levelled the scores once more as they worked the ball wide from a 5m scrum for Josh Adams to dive over, with fullback Leigh Halfpenny nailing the difficult conversion. A prime example of big match temperament, Pollard seized the day and slotted a clutch penalty in the 75th minute to seal a pulsating 19-16 win and complete a five-from-five goal-kicking masterclass.